Cyclocross: Cycling's George W. Bush

Dec 19 2011

Man drinking beer on bikeAh, Cyclocross—scruffy, fun-loving younger brother of road cycling. None of the endless training and expense, all of the fun, dirt, and beer handups, right? Surely this is the most populist of all sports, is it not?

No, actually—not even close. Not since a third-generation Yalie picked up a Texas accent and ran for President as a Washington Outsider has a brand been so obviously out of sync with its own reality. Cyclocross, while thrilling and fantastically enjoyable, is also the most expensive cycling discipline for those with an actual desire to be competitive, and the least friendly to the common racer stepping up to give it a shot.

On the road, race-able bikes start at around $1000 and, without swapping a single part, can be trained on and raced competitively for at least one season. That’s certainly how I got started, and I remember the winning selections of collegiate B and C races stocked with Dura-Ace and Sora in roughly equal proportions. All due respect to the high-gloss fields I currently run with, but thanks to some impressive raw talents and a general lack of any tactical know-how, those collegiate events remain some of the fastest, hardest-fought races I’ve ever had the pleasure of contesting.

Manufacturers can wage nerd war til the cows come home, but road races aren’t won and lost at the bike shop. Zipp and Cervelo will remind you of Cancellara’s amazing charge at the ’07 Tour, but his on-the-hoods, out-of-the-saddle position on that particular rampage more than negated any aerodynamic advantage of his wheelset. Road cycling isn’t contested by torso-less robots on trainers in wind tunnels; it’s a game of canny, back-biting, and subterfuge, and 99 times out of 100, you’ll do better to poach another rider’s aerodynamic advantage than to invest in your own.

By comparison, gear in cyclocross actually matters—specifically, tires. While entry-level CX bikes often offer a lower price, what you get for the money is also drastically reduced. I’ll overlook the downgrade from Ultegra to Tiagra (as I mentioned above, if the gears shift, you’re good to go); I’m complaining about the “cyclocross” tube and tire setup that has no place on any respectable race course.

After a few seasons of attempting to race ‘cross on clinchers, I’ve arrived at the conclusion—one that ought to be plastered in bold-face at the beginning of any article on cyclocross—that attempting to actually race cyclocross with clinchers and innerubes is an often pointless endeavor. Maybe if you’ve got the mad handling skillz and mimized downforce of, say, Rudy, you can venture out past the fringe of the greens on your local golf course. Otherwise, the tire pressures you need to run come with a DNF rate (via pinch flat) of about 1 in 4.

Tubulars fix this problem, of course, but they’re astronomically expensive. The tires start at 70 dollars, and even Williams Cycling’s much heralded “affordable” $369 cross wheelset represents an outlay as large as I’ve ever made on a pair of road wheels. To me, “affordable” applies to <$150 wheelsets, like the Maddux F20 I put 6000 miles into over the past two years.

Another reason competitive cyclocross all but requires tubulars is that, without free laps or follow trucks, you’ve got to be able to get to the pit on your own—much tougher on a flat clincher than a flat tubular. And once you get to the pit, you’ll need something to put on your bike; tack on another $470 for a second wheelset. And patching that tubular tire back up after the race…let’s just hope your puncture solution is a simple as an injection of Caffelatex.

But as anyone who’s been to a muddy Verge Series race knows, the only really competitive support is to have a second cyclocross bike at the ready in the pits. ($800 + $470) x 2 = $2,540, or better than twice the up-front investment of a raceable road bike. And keep in mind, these ‘cross figures are still for Tiagra level parts, while a similar road rig ships with Ultegra gear that’s good for at least few seasons to come. Much as I appreciate the functionality of Shimano’s low end parts, an ill-timed spill in the sand pit might be all she wrote for that budget shifter.

And of course, no detonation of this populist facade would be complete without pointing out how thoroughly cyclocross kowtows to the elite. A sponsored rider has to worry about almost none of the things I’ve listed above—no entry fees, a guaranteed spot on the line, free pit bikes, boatloads of swag, and a retirement account’s worth of wheelsets, making an unexpected snowstorm as manageable as a wheel swap.

Zdenek Stybar racing I hasten to add that there’s nothing “wrong” with this—good riders are fantastic marketing exposure, and with the salaries (or lack thereof) offered to the pros, the people who are actually good at ‘cross need as much help as they can get (see #livingthedream).

At the end of the day, though, what road racing does that cyclocross doesn’t is routinely turn out Frederick Vuechelens, Bobbie Traksels, Frederic Guesdons and host of other one-off winners who saw an opening, read a race, or were otherwise crazy enough to pull off the unlikeliest of upsets over the most elite of fields.

In road racing, there’s a sense that any rider with the skills to hold position, the watts the get free, and the stones to give it shot is guaranteed an opportunity to make a race-winning move. Most times, it doesn’t work—heck, sometimes it doesn’t even get attempted—but the option is there for any rider who would lay claim to it. Drop Zdneck Stybar into the first lottery spot at a World Cup and I don’t think he’d enjoy that same opportunity.

The point of all this isn’t that cyclocross needs to be somehow “fixed”. Obviously, I wouldn’t mind if the industry turned out more ~$1000 CX bikes that weren’t built to sit in the garage, but ‘cross racing is just fine in its current incarnation. Adam Myerson’s fantastic piece on CX racing rings as true for the guy in first as it does for the guy in 101st—I would know, having found myself riding in both positions at various moments over the past three years.

What bothers me is this position cyclocross seems to enjoy in the popular imagination of cycling fans as a, blue-collar, working (wo)man’s sport, as if mud, beer, tents, and Belgian country music were proof positive that it’s a somehow purer competition, geared to the common rider. Make no mistake about it, cyclocross rewards privilege—both in terms of income and talent—above almost anything else.

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